The academic and the philosopher

There is a book being advertised at Starbucks (The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein). In what is surely a bad joke, it is described as a “dog’s eye view of the human condition”. The book’s website begins by saying that “Enzo [the dog] knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly [emphasis added] human soul …” This image of the philosopher is not unlike the guru—the one who “thinks deeply” about the “big questions of life” or simply about “life”. (These two formulations are not quite equivalent. According to the one, life is presented either as a question or a series of questions; according to the other, life is a mystery that requires solving or decoding.) This is the sense in which “everyone is a philosopher” insofar as these “big questions” are intrinsic to the “human condition”.

Alternatively, the image of the philosopher is the socially useless (and often quirky) academician who spends his (and I do mean the gendered pronoun here) time in a room full of books using big, technical words that don’t mean anything except to the three people (which is apparently the national average) that will read the article he publishes in a journal that will never see the light of a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

This contradiction is operative in the usual reactions to the statement “I’m a student of philosophy”. Either one is then held to possess superior argumentative skills (in the manner of a lawyer or a sophist), profound wisdom (although a priest or guru is usually first consulted about personal or ethical dilemmas), or a penchant for brooding, existential melancholy (with only slightly more respect than emos and scenes). It is the paralyzing contradiction operative in the response I recently received: “Oh, ok, so I guess that means you, what, ‘philosophize’?” Philosophizing is an inner affair conducted either in an armchair or at the top of a mountain where one comes to an epiphany about the “meaning of life”.

This ambiguous image of the philosopher places him in a curious position with respect to this question. On the one hand, the philosopher is expected to have insight into the “meaning of life” insofar as he deals in abstractions and concepts instead of the inanities of toiling, child-raising, and fixing cars. On the other hand, the philosopher is collapsed into the spiritualist. In either case, the philosopher is caught between question and answer. If the “meaning of life” is something material, the philosopher is the one who can theorize about it in concepts but who does not himself make money, create art, etc; if the “meaning of life” is something spiritual, the philosopher is the one who remains at the level of logic and rational thinking instead of offering the super-rational, intuitive enlightenment of the mystic (i.e., instead of a dualism between the body and mind of the idealistic philosopher, the spiritualist wants a tripartite division of body, mind, and spirit).

It is then fortunate that Eagleton is not (or at least he does not consider himself to be) a philosopher.* Yet one wonders what basis he offers for his latest book (The Meaning of Life). In the preface he acknowledges that there is “something absurdly overreaching” about writing a book about “the meaning of life”, particularly for the one who does not have what he might call an “easy answer” to the question, i.e., God (although it is an injustice to the operation of faith to think there is anything “easy” about it, unless one conflates faith with fundamentalism, which is not immediately justified to my mind). As Eagleton poses the problem, then (although he is clearly not the first to do so), the question about the (question of the) “meaning of life” faces a methodological problem: if the answer is not God, then how might we even begin to seek an answer? How do we even pose the question? (Notice that this is also precisely Augustine’s problem in the Confessions even though for him the answer is, in fact, God—this is in part what I meant by saying that faith does not seem to be as “easy” as all that.)

*Eagleton is, rather, a “critic”, which is an archaic genre even in Britain, but one that is most appropriate for his work. The relation between criticism and philosophy is one that should be addressed in more detail at another time. It seems unfortunately to be the case, however, that much of Eagleton’s criticism has in the last few years (particularly since The English Novel) suffered the same fate as Rorty’s later work—i.e., that criticism becomes uninteresting when it is merely reactive and devolves into commentary. This is unfortunate, as much of Eagleton’s earlier work from the mid-1990s to about 2002 is penetrating, lucid, and genuinely entertaining.

What Eagleton brings to bear on the question of the “meaning of life” is the resources of philosophy: Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Freud, etc, with a little bit of literature thrown in (Chekhov, Beckett, Shakespeare, Douglas Adams, etc). Yet Eagleton is not speaking to philosophers: he is not telling philosophers anything about Wittgenstein that they do not already know (and, really, presenting Wittgenstein at a level that is even beneath the decent undergraduate philosophy major). To whom, then, is Eagleton writing? If not the specialist, then it would seem this book is addressed to the fiction of the “general (educated) public” to whom philosophy should be “relevant” to the “universal questions”.

Naturally, Eagleton does not claim to possess the “answer” to the question, but proposes a way of thinking about it.** Instead of endnotes, the book includes after its final chapter a list of “further reading” from just those philosophers discussed in the book. Despite the fact this suggestion seems to fall prey to the same book-club ideology that believes that anyone can just walk into a library and start reading The World as Will and Representation, at best the suggestion would increase sales at Barnes and Noble without necessarily bringing anyone into dialogue with philosophy; at the very least, philosophy becomes something consumable—wisdom on the shelf that can be brought to bear on my personal existential crisis (I fail to see how this does not end up perpetuating the same ideology of a “private” answer to the “meaning of life” that Eagleton himself suggests is an obstacle to a reasonable approach to the question). There is, moreover, a profound tension (if not a contradiction) between the idea that philosophy is “for everyone” and the impossibility of reading Spinoza’s Ethics without philosophical training.***

**What Eagleton proposes consists in the final chapter in an exposition of Aristotle’s ethics. Despite the fact this is a bit of a surprise given his prior work, one cannot help but wonder why he does not merely point his readers to Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody, which accomplishes much the same thing with approximately the same level of success and expectation from its readers.

***Ultimately, the ideology that “everyone is a philosopher” empties out the name of “philosophy” under an essentializing conception of the human being as a “thinking” or “rational” being. Because we are essentially, intrinsically “rational”, specialized, technical training in learning how to think is superfluous—we just need to recognize that anyone can “think for himself”. The philosopher has no more right or authority to talk about Aristotle’s Ethics that any rational human being who decides to think about ethics. This is, of course, a vulgar form of essentialism, for it is not to be found, say, in Aristotle’s conception of ethics according to which one can be more or less successful at “being human” and for whom so being human required not just the fortitude of an individual will or the integrity of one’s spirit but the involvement of public and political life.

Yet who is the academic even to make the suggestion that philosophy (or at least books of philosophy if not the discipline) is relevant to “everyone” or, more specifically (since the term “everyone” is ultimately an empty signifier), to the non-philosopher? Or, even: who is the academic to suggest that he has something worthwhile to say about the “meaning of life”? To whom does he have grounds to speak?

If Eagleton is not saying anything meaningful to philosophers, but is appealing to the audience of non-philosophers, is he then accusing philosophers of not being able to say anything meaningful to non-philosophers? Towards the end of the book, he evokes a remark from Wittgenstein’s TLP (6.52, 6.521) and comments:

“What Wittgenstein probably means [in the cited quotation] is not that the meaning of life is a pseudo-question, but that it is a pseudo-question as far as philosophy is concerned [emphasis added]. And Wittgenstein had no great respect for philosophy, which he hoped his [TLP] would bring to an end. All the vital questions, he thought, lay outside the subject’s stringent limits. The meaning of life was not something that could be said, in the form of a factual proposition; and for the early Wittgenstein, only this kind of proposition made sense.”

Aside from the familiar technical problems of the showing/saying distinction relied upon here, there is a deep equivocation over the word “philosophy”—what is the “philosophy” to which Wittgenstein was responding in the TLP (notice answering this question is impossible for the book-club enthusiast), and what is the “philosophy” to which Eagleton is referring when he speaks of the modern condition? If it is not academic pretension to presume that a book about the “meaning of life” that discusses some of the canonical texts of philosophy is “accessible” or “relevant” to the non-philosopher, then must it be the case that it is such a case of academic pretension to believe that the fight against dogma requires more than thinking that “getting Wittgenstein” means being able to encapsulate the TLP in the space of a couple pages or by reading “very short introductions”? If, in other words, the academic convinces the non-philosopher to read Schopenhauer, and the latter comes out of the engagement being able to say “it is self-evident to Schopenhauer that only an idiot could imagine that life was worth living”, have we gained any ground in the fight against dogma? Has not the belief that this reader has now “read and interpreted Schopenhauer” or “made Schopenhauer relevant” itself become a new dogma?

For philosophy really to avoid the Scylla of dogma and the Charybdis of sophistry, it must refuse identification with content (which manifests in various instances: in AOSs and tenure review procedures, comprehensive exams for graduate students, professional affiliations (e.g., as members of SPEP or the Sartre Circle), the curriculum and the canon, and so on), for this is the shortest route to dogma. Neither, however, can philosophy merely be identified with a certain “attitude” (usually described as “critical” insofar as philosophy teaches its students how to be “critical thinkers” about “anything”) or, in other words, be simply formal insofar as this is the route either to skepticism or sophistry. (The answer, of course, is a form-content dialectic.)

Neither is philosophy simply a “way of life”. Tempting though this formulation is, it does not go far enough in the reductive accounts of “life” either as organism or totality. Eagleton is right to point out the ambiguities contained in the word “life” when we ask for its meaning—e.g., not only that life as a meaning but also that there is a (single) thing called “life” that has a meaning. To adapt a formulation by Deleuze, we might say that “philosophy is a life”. This way of speaking is not equivalent to “the life of a philosopher is one way of life” insofar as it refers primarily not to a (particular) philosopher but to “philosophy”—the term “philosophy” contains not only the “philosopher” but always and necessarily a reference to philosophers (in the plural). It is the reverse procedure of the latter statement: we do not need to build a community of philosophy from the individual philosopher and his relation to other philosophers, but we are able to derive the individual philosopher from the life of philosophy.

Life is not philosophy and philosophy is not life; philosophy is a life. Yet this is neither simply radical contingency nor an insipid popular expression of diversity and relativism (e.g., life is one thing viewed from the perspective of philosophy and another viewed from the perspective of biology). There are many lives, not simply many “perspectives” on life. The plurality of lives is not simply one of “struggle” or bellum omnium if for no other reason than that contradiction is only one species of difference. To adapt a concept from a friend and colleague, if philosophy is a life, then the question of how philosophy might speak to the “meaning of life” is fundamentally one of reflection. Reflection here does not signify the sense of inner withdrawal (as when one “reflects” on one’s life to find meaning somewhere in it) but the operation of the fold, which can be expressed either as a “folding back” (re-pliée) or as a point of indiscernibility between levels of analysis (which I find more helpful to describe not only in terms of logical self-reference but also after the fashion of physical discontinuities of quanta) wherein what is expressed is not merely a repetition of the same but a point of (ir?)real transcendence (i.e., difference). This is, in short, the very definition of creativity. (To be brutal and glib, the point here is that philosophers need to read more Bergson and Deleuze.)